A Conversation with Arthur Laurents
April 26, 2000
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the April 26, 2000 Platform with Arthur Laurents:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening, I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to the latest in our series of ongoing Platform events. For those of you who haven't been here before, I'll begin with some questions of my own and then open things up for questions from you.
Arthur Laurents has been writing plays since the 1940s. His first play, Home of the Brave, was revived earlier this season, and there was also a new production of Do I Hear A Waltz?, a musical version of his play The Time of the Cuckoo, which Lincoln Center Theater is happily producing right now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Just by a show of hands, how many people have seen our production? [most raise their hands] That's wonderful! Along the years, Arthur has also written many other shows, including Gypsy and West Side Story, and movies such as The Way We Were and The Turning Point...so many. We'll talk about as much of his career as we can tonight. He's also written a wonderful memoir, Original Story By, that is available now. Hopefully, he'll tell us about that, too. Please welcome Arthur Laurents! [applause]
Arthur, thank you for coming tonight. I'd like to start with The Time of the Cuckoo, which is foremost in our minds here at LCT. The play was originally written in the early 1950's. Would you tell us a little bit about how it came to be and where you got the idea for it?
ARTHUR LAURENTS: I fell in love with Venice. I was living in Europe because I'd been blacklisted in Hollywood, but I was having a terrific time. A dollar was—well, you could buy a country with a dollar. I was based in Paris and drove to Venice in a borrowed car. I knew, of course, that it was on water, but I was so naïve I didn't understand it was all on water. I thoght I'd just drive around until I found a hotel.
Anyway, if you've ever been to Venice, you know it's absolutely unique. It's like nothing else in the world. It makes you yearn. You're not quite sure for what. I think that yearning was the source of this play. I didn't realize I was writing about myself. I don't think I ever did. You suddenly discover, "oh yes, there I am.... Leona Samish!" [laughter]
TC: The first production of The Time of the Cuckoo starred Shirley Booth and was directed by Harold Clurman. You write in your book that wasn't such a pleasant experience.
AL: A friend of mine is Ellen Adler, who is Stella Adler's daughter and Harold Clurman's stepdaughter. She read the book and now she doesn't talk to me. But she also said that she liked what I wrote about her mother. And at the opening of The Time of the Cuckoo at the Newhouse, Bob Whitehead was here—he was one of the producers of the original production. He said to me, "I love your book even though I don't like what you said about a couple of people". He meant Harold and [Elia] Kazan, old friends of his.
I thought Kazan was despicable because he was an informer. Harold had a great reputation as a theatre director and Kazan—despite what I think of him as a man—as a director, I think he changed American theater. He was the best theater director I've ever seen and he, not the Actor's Studio, changed acting.
Harold was different. He could explain all the socio-economic, Freudian what-have-you about the characters, but then he didn't know how to get the actors from chair to table. Which was rather important.
Shirley Booth worked the Method without knowing she was using it. She had marvelous technique and vulnerability. It was in her skin. She didn't have to do anything, she just was. But on her third day of rehearsal, she just walked off the stage. She needed help, and she wasn't getting it from Harold.
The stage manager—who also did my first play, Home of the Brave— was a loyal Marxist. He was a great character. He was the one who said to me on the opening night of Home of the Brave: "Don't be nervous, because success doesn't depend on whether the play is good or bad. The moon has to be out." And he's right! It is really a crap shoot. Very little depends on merit. Anyway, he took Shirley under his wing and talked to her, sweethearted her and she eventually got back on stage. But she didn't take suggestions from Harold. So I went to Bob and I said, "this is a terrible situation. We have to fire one of them."
There's a big party scene in the play's second act where the character of Leona—who Shirley played and now Debra Monk plays—gets drunk. It's very difficult. Debra, who is absolutely fearless, pulls it off. She's marvelous. But it was against Shirley's nature to do anything that might put the audience off.
Bob Whitehead wrote a wonderful piece for the Lincoln Center Theater Review about why Shirley wasn't a greater actress. The reason was, as he put it, she wanted too much to be popular. She stood on the stage of the Empire Theater, where we did this play, and she said, "I want them to like me". At the same time, she knew what she had to accomplish in the scene. She knew she wasn't doing it and Harold couldn't help her.
TC: Has the process of writing a play changed for you over the years?
AL: Yes, it's changed in several ways. One is the computer, which I resisted. But it makes it very easy to re-write. A typewriter is too much work for a re-writer who has a desire to be neat, as I always did. With a computer, you can fix everything in a flash! I think it makes the writing better. There are also bigger changes. It took me a long time, but I finally realized that the total pleasure of writing a play came from the writing. Not thinking for one moment what is going to happen to a play. 'Will anybody do it?' 'Who will be in it?' I don't think that way anymore. I write the play and I get tremendous joy out of the writing.
This fall, they are finally doing a play of mine called Jolson Sings Again in New York. I wrote it in 1995. It's hard for me to remember writing that play, because I just finished a new one today! This new play wasn't written like anything else I've done before. I knew the beginning and that was all. The characters really did that thing that you read about and you think is utter nonsense: they really took hold over. They dictated what was going to happen.
My process with anything that I write is I read it as I go along to my friend Tom Hatcher, who's a wonderful editor and critic. Last week, I read him the last scene of the new play. When I finished, he said "I'll get you a glass of water" and I said, "no, it's the end". He said, "no, it isn't". And I realized it wasn't. Now I have the ending and it's good. But, it's wonderful to allow that kind of discovery to happen.
TC: Do you feel comfortable telling us something about the new play?
AL: I will tell you the play is called "Claudia Lazlo". You don't know who she is because I made her up.
TC: She sounds like you should know who she is.
AL: Oh, you will. One problem with her is she's enormous. She's ten times larger than life. I'd like any of you to tell me a real, big actress in the American theater.
TC: What age?
AL: Actress age. That's from 35 to 65. There aren't those enormous actresses anymore. The theater used to have a lot of them. They don't have a chance to be in many plays and those they do appear in, rarely if ever call for characters that are larger than life.
TC: A lot of people who might have had a career in theater instead have had a career in television or film. You've spent a fair amount of time in Hollywood, including working on the movie version of The Time of the Cuckoo. Which eventually became not your play. It became a movie called Summertime.
AL: A travesty!
TC: Would you explain what happened there?
AL: The clearest indication of the difference between the two is that in The Time of the Cuckoo, an executive secretary named Leona Samish arrives in Venice for a 3-week vacation with an inexpensive Brownie camera. In Summertime, Katharine Hepburn arrives under the name of Jane Hudson in a gown by Adrian holding a fancy movie camera. I think that says it all.
The movie only used the first act of the play. They threw out the screenplay I had done. The director, David Lean, was in love with Hepburn, and she literally called the shots. After the picture was finished, she invited me over to have tea. Somebody won't be pleased to hear this, but Kate Hepburn had no sense of humor. Absolutely straight-faced, she said, "You won't like the film, but I'm brilliant in it."
She told me she hated the play's second act, because the man told off the woman. "All men are poops," she said. "I wouldn't give you ten men for any one woman." It was winter, there was a fire in the fireplace and she asked me to put another log on. "All men are poops," I said, "put it on yourself". She didn't find that funny.
TC: When we all had our first meeting for this new production, I was touched by something you said, that you had never really seen the play you had in your head. Because of the troubles that existed with the original production and with the movie version. In what way do you feel this production has finally brought out what you had intended?
AL: It all has to do with the character of Leona Samish. It's interesting. People referred to her as a schoolteacher. There isn't anything that says that. Why would they say schoolteacher? Because then and unfortunately even now, schoolteacher seems to say virgin. It just does. Or else they call her a spinster, which also says virgin. Leona Samish is not a virgin by any means. She's a party girl. But she never gave herself. She never trusted enough to be in love. That's what she discovers in the play. She discovers that she has to give. We have a wonderful director, Nicholas Martin. And Debra Monk, as I said, is fearless. It's really a wonderful company. I'm not trying to sell tickets. Some of the play is hard to take.
It's funny. I was here at a matinee. Coming out of the theater were two women in their late sixties. They said, "are you walking out, too?" I said, "No. Why are you walking out"? They said, "it's so bawdy". I haven't heard that word since Chaucer! And this was only after the first act. There is some talk about sex but…I don't know, maybe it's Lincoln Center. But this is New York!
What I found shocking in the play is all the drinking and smoking. You think, my God, how did these people escape AA? We all drank and smoked like fiends. It's a little embarrassing to see it, but that's the way it was. But it is a glorious production. Everybody is terrific.
TC: A lot of people feel that the play feels so fresh and suspect that it has been significantly re-written. The fact is, it hasn't really been.
AL: I think they may think that because, at the time that it was written, it was not usual for a single woman to go to Europe on a tour by herself. Today, that's what career women do. A single woman is commonplace. A lot of women prefer it. She seems more identifiable. It's no longer a crime not to be married. A lot of women prefer it. A lot of men prefer it. People can't believe that people behaved then just as they may do now. And there still is a big difference between American culture and European culture. We take things much more humorlessly than they do.
TC: You wrote in The New York Times in 1952 about how Americans are perceived as pragmatic and stiff, while really they are secretly romantic, while Italians are perceived as romantic when really they are pragmatic.
AL: Oh yes. We are afraid of exposing ourselves, while the Italians expose themselves all over the place, but I'm not so sure they mean it. Somebody once said "they'll steal your eye out of its socket—but with charm." It's probably true.
TC: Do you want to talk about whatever changes you did make to the play for this production?
AL: One change I made—at the suggestion of our valiant director—is adding the older couple, the McIlhenneys, into the second act. They weren't in the party scene. Which surprised me. I don't know how I slipped up on that. And I wrote a speech for June that wasn't in the original about how, in Europe, she's special. I made a few cuts as well. It got a little message-y. So I trimmed it. Otherwise, it's exactly the same.
TC: Now, are there any questions from the audience?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: First, I want to say that Gypsy is my all-time favorite musical. And while I love this production of Cuckoo, I also loved the production that was done at The Church of the Heavenly Rest back in 1986, with Michael Learned. I was wondering, did you see that production and if so, how do you feel it compares to this new one?
AL: The Church of the Heavenly Rest! They have an AA meeting there; they call it the Church of the Heavenly Dressed! [laughter] I saw that production only in rehearsal. I liked it, but I don't think it compares.
AM #1: Can you tell us any memories of [Gypsy composer] Jule Styne?
TC: He wasn't your first choice for Gypsy, right?
AL: No, I wanted Steve Sondheim to do the music. But Jule, I'm embarrassed to say, had to audition for me. He had no pride about it, though. He walked in and was very dapper. He always had on these little hats. Anyway, he walked in, he sat down at the piano and melodies poured out of him the way sweat pours out of ordinary mortals. They just came out. He was enormously enthusiastic.
He was brimming over with ideas. He had a hundred ideas a minute. 99 of them were terrible, but one was absolutely brilliant. When he did the show, he and Steve would work on a song and then come over to my house and he'd pull out the sheet music and announce "another hit". After he played the song, if I said "I don't think so, Jule," he'd ask me why and then he'd come back the next day: "Another hit!" And this time it was. He was a wonderful collaborator.
TC: Do you like the collaborative process? And is it different to collaborate in the theater, compared to the movies?
AL: It's not the same in the movies. Nothing is the same in movies. For the writer, it's sheer hell. The only plus is that, unlike the theater, you are guaranteed to make money. But, as I've said elsewhere, if you're a writer they kiss your ass to get your script, and then when they get it, they throw you out on your ass. It's not a collaboration. They really don't care. The only way you can do it is to direct, which I don't want to do. Or be co-producer.
I was a co-producer of The Turning Point. An old friend of mine, Herb Ross, was the director and a co-producer. He said, "Don't worry about the studio, I'll deal with it." The movie was about the ballet. So I thought, I'll have to deal with the gay issue. I gave it a strong gay subplot. Which began to disappear from the script, bit by heterosexual bit. I thought it was the studio, and then I saw it was my friend Herb. So I brought it up to him. This was in 1978, I think. He said, "nobody in the ballet is gay anymore". [pause] The defense rests. [laughter]
TC: How about collaborating in the musical theater?
AL: It's very different. That can be wonderful. It depends on your collaborators. West Side Story and Gypsy were wonderful. I had a wonderful time. And I had a wonderful time when I directed La Cage Aux Folles, working with Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein. It's sort of like a marriage. You have to be simpatico with your collaborators. Also, you have to be on the same artistic level. You kid yourself if you think I'm going to raise X up or I'm not going to let Y pull me down or whatever. That's when you really get in trouble.
TC: Writing the book for a musical is such a specific talent. And so few succeed at it. In my humble opinion, you are probably the greatest living bookwriter of musicals, so why don't you write more musicals?
AL: Because I've been writing plays. When I wrote Jolson Sings Again, I hadn't written a play in twelve years. I loved writing it so much that I wrote four more. When I ran out of ideas, it was suggested I write this memoir, which I did. Then I wrote another play.
I am mentoring a musical. It involves my godson, Adam Guettel, who I think is the most brilliant young composer on the scene today. He's just wonderful. I'm kind of mentoring that musical. We'll see what happens with it.
The only other reason I would want to do a musical is if I could work again with Steve Sondheim. We've talked about it but, all the ideas he brings to me have been depressing. I'm very optimistic about life. I believe in life. I am a life force. If Steve and I find something we can agree upon, then I will do another musical. Otherwise, there isn't anybody else I'd care to work with.
TC: Even Adam?
AL: I'll stick to mentoring on this one.
AM #2: Can you tell us what happened to Fanny Price?
AL: For those of you who don't know, Fanny Price was—in her own way—-the inspiration for The Way We Were. Fanny was a girl I went to college with. I was talking to Barbra Streisand about an idea for a movie for her. A terrible idea for a movie. It was to be a cross between Julie Andrews leading the Von Trapp Family and Anne Bancroft teaching Helen Keller. It was going to be Barbra teaching handicapped children in Brooklyn to sing.
Anyway, I was talking to Barbra, saying I'll come up with something else and…I looked at her and she reminded me of somebody. I wasn't sure who. We kept talking and I suddenly realized it was this girl, Fanny Price, whom I'd gone to Cornell with. The fact that Barbra had done Funny Girl, whose character was named Fanny Brice...I thought that was sort of a Zen moment. But I don't know what happened to Fanny Price.
AM #3: How do you feel about Ethel Merman not getting the role of Rose in the movie version of Gypsy?
AL: I thought she was lucky. It was a terrible movie. In all honesty, Ethel Merman was too big for the movies. Some people have a persona for the screen. In The Turning Point, we had Shirley MacLaine. One day, they were running costume tests. She didn't have any make-up on, her hair was a mess but she looked absolutely gorgeous. The cameraman said, "the camera loves her". If the camera loves you, you can do the movies. If it doesn't, you're out. The camera didn't love Ethel. At all. We wanted to ignore it, but the studio wouldn't have it.
AM #4: Can you talk about how Gypsy came about? And did Gypsy's mother really push somebody out of a window?
AL: What happened was, David Merrick and his co-producer, Leland Hayward, asked me to write Gypsy. They asked me because [director-choreographer] Jerry Robbins—even though we weren't particularly friendly at that point—said he would do it if I wrote the book.
I read Gypsy Rose Lee's book and told Leland, "it's very entertaining but I'm not interested in writing a show about the strip tease queen of America." He said, "well, maybe you'll think of something." Then I was at a cocktail party. We had real cocktail parties in those days. No white wine! There was a girl there—people were talking about their first lovers—she said, "my first lover was Gypsy Rose Lee's mother". That was interesting. "What was she like?", I asked. One of the stories she told me was how Rose had crammed all these kids into a hotel room—that's in the play—and then the hotel manager protests, and in the play she yells "rape". In real life, she pushed him out the window and killed him. She was adorable.
AM #5: In your memoir, you write about how you made a list of common plot twists which you then used to create radio dramas. Do you feel this technique can be used in the creation of musicals?
AL: No. Not in a good musical. They're found in a lot of not good musicals. I think musicals—like plays—should be character-driven. If the character is interesting, you will find the character providing you with all your twists. Not necessarily throwing people out a window but...Rose sort of made herself up as she and I went along.
What Gypsy is about to me...I know in one sense it's about parents trying to lead their children's lives or children becoming their parents, but to me it's about the need for recognition. I think everyone has that need. Rose certainly did.
I think plays today lack structure. A well-made play is structured. What they really don't need is what you're talking about: contrived devices that make something happen or tie everything up. It's the same thing in a musical.
AM #6: I loved The Way We Were, but it never really rang true to me that the characters played by Redford and Streisand should be together.
AL: Forgive me for this... I think that's perhaps because you were conditioned by seeing movies where two gorgeous people get together because they're gorgeous. The Way We Were isn't quite the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, but in it, opposites attract. He was attracted to her passion and integrity, which he didn't have. And she was attracted to his beauty. Actually, what you didn't like…it's why they didn't stay together. They were not meant for each other.
TC: Just to bring us full circle, The Time of the Cuckoo also has no happy ending...
AL: No, it has a happy ending. Leona is going to be a better person, which is more important than anything.
TC: And speaking of endings, we must stop now, but we're so grateful to you, Arthur, for being with us here tonight. Thank you so much! [audience applause] And thanks to all of you for coming, too. Good night, everyone!